17. And he was afraid, and said: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
This is a very wonderful speech. All Holy Scripture has nothing like it either in the Old or in the New Testament. For this place is called the house of God and the gate of heaven, and this is stated only in this one passage and nowhere else. This is nothing else than calling it the kingdom of heaven and heaven itself, for the place where God dwells is the house of God. But where does God dwell? Does He not dwell in heaven? Therefore he joins the earth with heaven and heaven with the earth. He sets up a heavenly habitation and the kingdom of God at that place on the earth and says: “The kingdom of heaven, the gate to heaven, is where the approach to heaven is open and also where the exit from the house of God is open.” For he distinguishes between heaven and earth, that is, between the present and the future life; for after this life he promises himself eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, which begins in the present life. Indeed, Jacob already feels that he is and lives in that kingdom. Accordingly, the prophets undoubtedly drew very many outstanding revelations from this speech. From it have flowed those promises in Daniel and elsewhere where Jerusalem is compared to the kingdom of heaven. Dan. 8:10 states: “It grew great, even to the host of heaven; and some of the host of stars it cast down to the ground, and trampled upon them.” For here nothing else is meant than the church and the teachers and hearers in it.
Then the church is defined here, what it is and where it is. For where God dwells, there the church is, and nowhere else; for the church is God’s house and the gate of heaven, where the entrance to eternal life and the departure from the earthly to the heavenly life are open. But where God has not spoken or dwelt, there the church has never been either. Today we are engaged in a great struggle with the completely corrupt papists concerning the church. They confidently arrogate its name and title to themselves and boast that the church is among them and indeed in their doctrines and ceremonies. But although we acknowledge that the church is among them—for they have Baptism, absolution, and the text of the Gospel, and there are many godly people among them—yet if they want the addition that the pope and their pomp is the true church, we will by no means concede this. We confront them with this text, that God’s house and the church of God are the same, according to the statement in John 14:23: “If a man loves Me, he will keep My Word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” His commandments must be there, and it is necessary to love them. For God does not make His abode unless we have His commandments. If the church is to be the house of God, it is necessary for it to have the Word of God and for God alone to be the Head of the household in this house.
But we do not accept that addition of the papists, who cry out: “You have the Keys from us, the Sacrament of the Altar, the calling, and the ministry, which are the marks of the true church. But one thing is lacking, namely, that you refuse to acknowledge that the pope and the cardinals are the church.” With regard to this, therefore, there is a conflict between us and the papists. We refuse to admit the enemy along with the Head of the household, for Christ and Satan cannot rule the same house at the same time. For “what accord has Christ with Belial?” (2 Cor. 6:15.) Accordingly, if the pope should be honored, it is necessary for us to deny Christ. For He does not allow Satan to reign in His house. If we want to have a church, it must not be polluted and commingled with any satanic doctrine. But the papistic traditions are godless and in conflict with the Word of God, and it is for the sake of this Word alone that God wants to make His abode with us. Therefore those traditions must be shunned, for Belial and Christ cannot be lords or heads of one house.
Therefore this passage and others like it should be carefully observed, in order that we may learn from them that the pope and his adherents are not the church. But if the objection is raised: “Yet they have Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.,” I reply: “Those who54 have the pure Word and Baptism belong to us and to the true church. But those who have pomp in addition are not the church. Even though they have Baptism, the text of the Gospel, etc., yet they have these in vain, because Christ and Belial are not in accord. For the bed is narrow. Consequently, one of the two falls out, and the short cloak cannot cover both, as Is. 28:20 says: ‘The bed cannot bear them; nor is it possible to cover both at once.’ ” And the only thing they strive for is to introduce their abominations secretly and defend them. Therefore one must always confront them with these words (1 Kings 18:21): “How long will you go along limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The Lord and Baal are not in agreement. Nevertheless, Ahab was eager to bring them together. He wanted to serve God in the pure Word and at the same time to mingle human traditions with it. But opposites cannot exist together; they cancel each other.
Accordingly, this is what Jacob says: “This place in which I am sleeping is the house and church of God.” Here God Himself has set up a pulpit, and He Himself is the first to preach about the descendants and about the uninterrupted continuance of the church. But Jacob, together with the descendants in his loins, is the listener. Likewise the angels in heaven. For if there is even one person who hears the Word together with the angels who are present along with him, it is sufficient.
But he describes the glow of this church in a very magnificent manner by saying that here the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is open. For God governs us in such a way that wherever He speaks with us here on earth, the approach to the kingdom of heaven is open. This is truly extraordinary consolation. Wherever we hear the Word and are baptized, there we enter into eternal life. But where is that place found? On earth, where the ladder which touches heaven stands, where the angels descend and ascend, where Jacob sleeps. It is a physical place, but here there is an ascent into heaven without physical ladders, without wings and feathers. This is how faith speaks: “I am going to the place where the Word is taught, where the Sacrament is offered and Baptism is administered.” And all those things that are done in my sight in a physical place are heavenly and divine words and works. That place is not only ground or earth; but it is something more glorious and majestic, namely, the kingdom of God and the gate of heaven. “Here one goes to the stars,” as is stated by the poet.55 There is no reason for you to run to St. James’s56 or to withdraw into a comer or to hide yourself in a monastery. Do not seek a new and foolish entrance. But look in faith at the place where the Word and the sacraments are. Direct your step to the place where the Word resounds and the sacraments are administered, and there write the title THE GATE OF GOD. Let this be done either in the church and in the public assemblies or in bedchambers, when we console and buoy up the sick or when we absolve him who sits with us at table. There the gate of heaven is, as Christ says (Matt. 18:20): “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” Throughout the world the house of God and the gate of heaven is wherever there is the pure teaching of the Word together with the sacraments.
But we should look at the external place not only with the eyes of the flesh and in the manner of beasts; nor should we think that the Word itself is an empty sound. Of course, it is a human voice, and he who speaks the Word is a human being. The temple itself is built of stones and wood, and it is our temple. When assemblies are not held there, it is not the temple of God unless this term is used in a relative sense. But when sermons are delivered there, when the sacraments are administered and ministers are ordained to teach, then say: “Here is the house of God and the gate of heaven; for God is speaking, as 1 Peter 4:11 states: ‘Whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies.’ ”
But the blindness and stupidity of our minds has been put before our eyes like a cloud, so that we do not see such great glory. It is great honor and majesty, however, when one says: “This is the Word of God.” I hear a man’s voice. I see human gestures. The bread and the wine in the Supper are physical things. At ordination the hands of carnal men are imposed. In Baptism water is water. For the flesh judges in no other way concerning all these matters. But if you look at that addition with spiritual eyes, namely, at whose Word it is that is spoken and heard there, not indeed the word of a man—for if it is the word of a man, then the devil is speaking—but the Word of God, then you will understand that it is the house of God and the gate of heaven. The wooden house or the land per se does not deserve this name; but the land where the Word resounds is the land of God, not of the Creator but of the Ruler of His church, who governs His saints in such a way that they enter into the kingdom of heaven. Thus the water that is poured in Baptism is not the water of the Creator; it is the water of God the Savior.
But I see another law in my members fighting against faith (cf. Rom. 7:23). For I know that this is true, yet I am not able to assent with certainty and full confidence. I am not able to believe as much as I would want to believe. This is surely how it is. But not even the angels are able to grasp and perceive what a great thing it is that is being done and said here. Consequently, they cannot look at and consider it enough. But I would desire to grasp as much as I would want to grasp now. But not even this is possible. For flesh and blood, or that weight, mentioned in Heb. 12:1, and the sin surrounding us, resist. This depresses the spirit, which would gladly take hold of those things and drink them to the full, so that it would be inebriated. But it is necessary to be content with a little, provided that the tongue is refreshed.
In the meantime, however, we must accustom ourselves to be able to make that addition which Jacob and the angels in heaven make at this place. For the flesh fixes its eyes only on the water, on the bread, on the wine, and on the ground where Jacob slept; but the spirit must see the water, the hand, the Word of God, and God in the water. The flesh sees so keenly that it judges that the water is water and excludes God, as the Sacramentarians and the Anabaptists do. Therefore one must learn contrary to the view of the flesh that it is not a simple word and only an empty sound, but that it is the Word of the Creator of heaven and earth. Thus the imposition of hands is not a tradition of men, but God makes and ordains ministers. Nor is it the pastor who absolves you, but the mouth and hand of the minister is the mouth and hand of God.
Therefore we should acknowledge and make much of the boundless glory of God by which He has revealed Himself to us in His church. For it is not the kind of house in which He creates as He created all things in the beginning out of nothing. No, it is a house in which He speaks with us, deals with us, feeds us, and cares for us when we are asleep and when we are awake. But how few there are who believe this! This is true, and it is a very great Word, in which the angels in heaven take delight. When they hear it, they are filled with joy and gladness because of this knowledge of the church. Yet they cannot look at, consider, and admire it enough. For the church includes God, who dwells with us in such a way that He quickens, guards, and heals us; and by this dwelling together He brings it about that in this life there is the house of God and the gate of heaven.
These matters are assuredly immeasurable and wonderful. Therefore we should learn to enlarge on and make much of the glow of the church as it deserves. We should not hold it in slight esteem or put its true worth in things that are absurd and of no value, as the sacrilegious papists are wont to do. They imagine that the church should be a physical congregation devoted to drink, food, clothing, etc., although our church also has much that is physical and external, like bread, water, land, etc. But there is a great difference between the physical things of which the papists boast and those we have. For the former have been taken up and employed contrary to God, not for God or according to God’s Word. Therefore their church is only empty pretense, imagination, and a false show. On the other hand, it is an exceedingly important thing when Jacob declares specifically that God’s house is found where God dwells with us, where we are the household, yes, the sons and daughters, and He Himself is our Father, who speaks and deals with us and brings it about in the most intimate way that the church is also the gate of heaven. For He dwells with us in order that we may enter into the kingdom of heaven. And, what is most delightful, He comes first and appears to us on the ladder. He descends and lives with us. He speaks and works in us.
Thus the church is established among men when God dwells with men, with this end in view that it may be the gate of heaven and that we may pass from this earthly life into the eternal and heavenly life. Who can adequately marvel at or comprehend this, namely, that God dwells with men? This indeed is that heavenly Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven from God and has the splendor of God, as is stated in Rev. 21:2. This is the definition of the church in its essence: “The church is the place or the people where God dwells for the purpose of bringing us into the kingdom of heaven, for it is the gate of heaven.” From this it follows most properly that in the church nothing should be heard or seen except what God does, according to the statement (1 Peter 4:11): “hoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies.” But if I am uncertain about the Word or the administration of God, I must be silent. But whenever I minister, that is, baptize or absolve, I must be certain that my work is not mine, but God’s, who works through me. Baptism is a work of God; for it is not mine, although I lend my hands and my mouth as instruments. Thus when I absolve you or call you to the ministry and lay my hands on you, you should not doubt that, as Peter says, it is God’s strength. This, then, is the complete definition of the church, which is the habitation of God on earth. Not that we should remain on earth, but the sacraments are administered and the Word is taught in order that we may be led into the kingdom of heaven and through the church may enter into heaven.
Jacob saw this, his descendants also saw it, we too, and all who are now the church or will be the church after us see it, namely, that the church is the house of God which leads from earth into heaven. The place of the church is in the temple, in the school, in the house, and in the bedchamber. Wherever two or three gather in the name of Christ, there God dwells (cf. Matt. 18:20). Indeed, if anyone speaks with himself and meditates on the Word, God is present there with the angels; and He works and speaks in such a way that the entrance into the kingdom of heaven is open. On the other hand, God does not dwell in human traditions; for He does not speak there. For one must always pay attention to the fact that Jacob hears God speaking and working. And the services the church performs are truly those that lead into the kindom of heaven. But the papal church is not the kingdom of heaven; for it seeks gold, silver, kingdoms, and crowns of the world. These are their keys (cf. Matt. 16:19): “Whatever you bind on earth, that is, when you depose kings, take away kingdoms, etc.” There is the way to hell. Accordingly, let us, together with the patriarch Jacob, hear the words of God, not of the pope, not the voice of human traditions. For when He speaks, then the gate and entrance to the kingdom of heaven is open.
54 The Weimar text has quia, but we have followed other editions and read qui.
55 Vergil, Aeneid, IX, 641.
56 Cf. Luther’s Works, 4, p. 130, note 31.